Stone, Ice, Birds, History
I’ve been on the road recently and spent a bit too much of the past week staring at embroidered words that seemed to read: FAST! EAT BELT WHILE SEATED. That may be why I decided to read a new book of poems when I returned home.
Will Stone’s Glaciation came out in 2007 from Salt Publishing in Cambridge, England. According to the book jacket, he is a poet, photographer, and translator, with a degree in Literary Translation from the University of East Anglia. In an earlier post on Georges Rodenbach, I wrote about Stone’s translation of Rodenbach’s seminal photographically-illustrated novel Bruges-la-Morte, in which Stone updated the late 19th century photographs of Bruges with his own contemporary versions.
Stone’s poems dwell on the brute power of nature, the unending tragedy that is history, and the probable futility of throwing out fragile life lines in the form of art. Over and over, birds articulate the bitter truth like a Greek chorus.
Birds cry out sadly as they wheel again
back and forth over the sucking abyss,
over the monstrous plaster limb of ice.
Toward the end of Glaciation, Stone includes a poem entitled SS Fort Breendonk, which is dedicated “In memory of WG Sebald.” Only a few pages into Sebald’s book Austerlitz, the title character Jacques Austerlitz gives what amounts to a brief history of the architecture of fortifications. The following day the book’s narrator takes a train from Antwerp (where the fortress conversation had taken place) to visit nearby Fort Breendonk, which had been a German prisoner of war camp run by the SS during WWII. “A monolithic, monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence”; so begins the narrator’s desciption of his visit, which runs for some ten pages or so.
The narrator of Stone’s poem also explores “the surgical tunnels” of the fort where “men like us but not like us howled.”
They propped the condemned at the stake,
and afterwards got the Jews in
to collect the clogs, hose down the posts.
And the birds sang after the execution,
as was the custom.
And, like Sebald, Stone questions official attempts to memorialize places of horror and to educate present generations about the nearly unimaginable past.
‘The complexities of human nature are displayed here,’
states the tourist literature.
‘We welcome schoolchildren.’ And
‘It must never happen again.”
That sort of thing…
“Poems”, Stone writes, “are trapped passengers”
unable to decide how to tackle
[from Explanation to an Academic]